Northern Spain Road Trip
Like many tourists, our first taste of Spain was Madrid. We spent about two weeks there in the spring, but since we were mostly working, we were left with a desire to return. Our first impression was lasting, so when we had free time in Europe later last year we head directly back, landing first in Barcelona. Donny’s mother and aunt (her first international trip ever!) met us in the capital of Catalonia where we embarked on a family-style, northern Spain road trip. Our route took us from Barcelona through Girona, Zaragoza, Logroño and finally back to Madrid. Since time was limited, but we also didn’t want to move too quickly, we chose those three cities as bases, and made shorter day-trips from each. We made this trip in mid-October, and the fall season certainly influenced our visit: leaves were changing color, crowds were sparse, and our days were sunny with comfortable temperatures. Read on for the low-down on our route, highlights and lodging.
We spent a few days in Barcelona before our guests arrived, and a few more together with them. Seeing even a small part of what Barcelona has to offer requires at least four or five days. It’s a city that we found grew on us the more time we spent. There are many excellent destination posts covering Barcelona. If you’re a food lover, Spanish Sabores has recently published an amazing Barcelona Gastro Guide. Also check out Ben Holbrook’s thorough exploration of Barcelona on and off the beaten path on his blog, Driftwood Journals. Of course we enjoyed the major tourist spots like Sagrada Familia, Parque Guell, the Gothic Quarter and La Boqueria. We also loved just wandering the diverse neighborhoods and getting a feel for the city.
TIP: It’s well-worth seeking out La Xampañería (Can Paixano) on Carrer de la Reina Cristina. This cava bar is well-established (since 1969) and well-known, making it also always crowded. Make time for a bottle of champagne and some delicious plates of ham, olives and cheese or any combo in a bocadillo. The bar is a short walk from the Barceloneta area.
Barcelona to Girona (120k via N-11)
Reluctantly leaving a great Airbnb in the neighborhood of Baix Guinardo, we picked up our rental car and hit the road. One tip for navigation while trying to save data is saving the section of Google Maps containing your day’s route for “offline” use. As far as I can tell this is an Android only feature but if anyone with an iPhone does this please let us know. Navigating using our cell phone worked like a charm getting out of the city and on our way to our destination, Girona. Our northern Spain road trip had begun! Choosing the scenic route, of course, we head north out of Barcelona, joining the N-11 just north of Badalona. This route hugs the coast, and is often within sight of the sea. We stopped to stretch our legs a couple of times, including a beachside lunch at Soltici in Caldes d’Estrac. The Mediterranean coastal town of Lloret de Mar was another particularly lovely pit stop. Be sure to catch the views back toward the beach from the beautiful coastal footpath. This is another good spot if you’re looking for a snack, with a number of restaurants and vendors along the beach.
Girona, Figueres and Cadaqués
Arriving after dark to our hotel in Girona, we tucked in for the night after discussing our next few days plans. We would use Girona as a home base to explore Figueres and Cadaqués. From Girona, we were back on the N-11 heading north straight up to Figueres. This continued our money-saving trend of favoring smaller roads over the Autopistas. These bigger highways have tolls, and they can add up quickly. Generally, we steered clear of roads starting with the letters, AP. Those are the ones with tolls, where the “A” roads, the Autovias, had no tolls. The roads seemed just as fast, were usually more scenic, and, of course, free.
The Dali Theatre and Musuem in Figueres was thought-provoking, and very educational. We were surprised at how interactive some of the exhibits were: very fun! We were also fascinated by the jewelry pieces designed by Dali. Who knew? After spending a good part of the morning in the museum it was time for lunch. Just down the alley we spied a charcuterie plate and decided this would be a great time to introduce our travel companions to the joys of Spanish cheese and meat. This would become a common theme on our northern Spain road trip.
Once we got a second wind after our light lunch it was time to continue our Dali-themed day. We set out for Cadaqués, where Dali spent time during his childhood, and where he kept a home later in life. Follow the C-260 out of Figueres heading east to just before the town of Roses, where you connect to the GI-614 *Note- if you have people in your party that get motion sickness you may want to have them take a nap, the road to Cadaqués is CURVY!* Well-worth the driving, this picturesque seaside village feels like you are seeing a real slice of Spain. With the Cap de Creus Lighthouse on our game plan, we decided to skirt town and head straight there, as it would be getting dark soon. If you thought the road to Cadaqués was hairy then maybe have someone else drive out to the lighthouse: this road is a whole different beast! Regularly stopping and letting oncoming cars pass (as the two way road is too skinny to pass each other at certain points) is absolutely normal. (For those who have visited Hawaii, think ‘Road to Hana’.” We were once again rewarded for gutting out the drive. The views of the jagged, rocky shoreline with the Mediterranean blue backdrop were spectacular. Concerned about the sun going down and the scary roadway, not to mention the hunger pains, we head back into the center of town to hunt for dinner. After exploring town a bit, dipping our toes in the sea, and gorging on seafood, we drove off into the darkness back to Girona.
An additional day was spent exploring the old town of Girona. This ancient city was founded in 79 BC!!! The old cobbled streets set alongside the Onyar River lend themselves perfectly to just plain wandering. In classic ancient style, La Catedral de Girona is built on a high point looking down on the town. Only after the fact we learned that the town, and the cathedral specifically, were used as a filming location for season 6 of Game of Thrones! Eating churros while ambling around the old town, we thoroughly enjoyed taking in the historic vibe.
Girona to Zaragoza (420k via C-25, A-22 and E-07)
Next destination on this northern Spain road trip was Zaragoza. We head west on C-25 toward Lleida before heading north. Looking at the map, this may seem counter-intuitive, but our idea was to check out the town of Huesca, not too far out of the way. Huesca was founded in the 1st Century BC. Its 800-year old cathedral is impressive, and there are some cool Roman and Moorish historical sites nearby. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain in Huesca, so we only stopped for a picnic in the car for lunch and carried on. Arriving to our city center accommodation, Hotel Sauce, we parked our car for the next couple of days in their garage. If you plan on doing the same I hope you have a small car and are a confident driver! We absolutely loved this family-run hotel, which is a great value and in a perfect location for exploring. Zaragoza boasts ancient Roman ruins, and you get a brilliant history lesson by following the Roman Route. This includes ruins of Roman Walls, Public Baths, Caesaraugusta Forum, the Roman Theatre, and the River Port. Zaragoza also boasts an absolutely amazing church, the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, and a great bar and tapas scene. We were lucky to read about Taberna Doña Casta and even luckier to sample her croquetas. These are hands down the best I have had anywhere. The ingredients they are filled with are very interesting combinations, so make sure to order a variety. Plus a vermouth, aka vermut, of course!
Zaragoza to Logroño via Olite (217k via A-68, N-121 and A-12)
It was then off to wine country. From Zaragoza, we followed the A-68. Just past Tudela, we veered right onto N-121 for an exciting detour to the Palacio de los Reyes de Navarra de Olite (aka Olite Castle). The castle has undergone several permutations since its first mention in documents from the 13th century. Views from the many turrets are breathtaking, and the palace is filled with history. This is truly a fairytale castle, complete with one tower built specifically as a playground for a king’s children. Being able to walk through nearly the entire space at our own pace was a big bonus. Well off the beaten tourist track, we shared the castle with only a handful of other people. We highly recommend stopping here if you find yourselves in the Navarra region.
Wanting to explore a bit of the Rioja region, we decided to base ourselves in Logroño. Besides being a good jumping-off point, Logroño is a great place to eat! As it happened, Calle Laurel, already famous in Logroño for pinchos, tapas and drinking, was having a festival. The Saturday we were there was “Dia de la Cata,” which entitles us to wine samples (a very generous pour in a keepsake glass) from four wineries for 5 euros. Score! One of our favorites was from Bodegas Marqués del Puerto, from nearby Fuenmayor. Most eateries along Calle Laurel specialize in just one dish, and do that one thing VERY well. Some of our favorites were Champinon a la plancha from Angel, Matrimonio (Bocatita de anchoas con pimiento verde), El Muro’s Cojonudo (picadillo de chorizo con huevo de codorniz y pimiento), Spicy pig ears from El Percha, and Tio Agus, which was a little sandwich of chorizo with grandma’s secret green sauce, which we thought might have a hint of curry. Calle Laurel has a mouth-watering guide to all these dishes and where to find them.
Our side trip was 20k up N-232, just past the small town of La Guardia to Bodegas Ysios. Our tour was very educational, and the wine was excellent. The drive was spectacular, passing through rolling hills covered with vineyards as far as the eye can see. There are many other bodegas within close reach. Some are noteworthy for their architecture as well as their wine (like Ysios). Plan ahead and make a reservation at the winery of your choice, as hours vary and spaces are limited. On the way back, we took the scenic route, visiting the Romanesque bridge near the beautiful Riojan village of San Vicente de Sonsierra. It provided beautiful views of fall foliage over the Ebro River (which we’d been following since Zaragoza!)
Logroño to Madrid (232k via N-111 and A-2)
Our northern Spain road trip was coming to an end. The landscape along the N-111 changed drastically as we wound our way along the Iregua River through the Sierra de Cebollera natural park, surrounded by mountains and forests of pine, beech and oak. Emerging on the other side of the reserve, the landscape becomes progressively more flat, and then more and more urban, before giving itself over entirely to sprawling Madrid.
Do you have a favorite northern Spain road trip we should know about? We’d love to hear recommendations for next time, since we’re sure to return!